I can't escape the feeling I've read Germline before. There's an inevitable sameness about all war is hell novels with a male protagonist, even in such famous efforts as The Red Badge of Courage and The Thin Red Line. Alienation, grit, and horror: T. C. McCarthy's narrative voice isn't quite strong enough to make the material seem fresh.
The US and Russia are engaged in a resource war in Kazakhstan. Oscar Wendell, reporter and child of privilege, is addicted to a number of substances, adrenaline and self-destruction not least among them. When he scores the opportunity to report on the war from the front lines, he quickly becomes hooked on it, too: a poisonous mix of attraction, self-destruction, camaraderie, and cowardice.
McCarthy has solid, workmanlike prose, and an eye for detail and setting—most of it quite horrible—that's praiseworthy in a debut writer. But the book lacks a unity of dramatic arc: its somewhat disconnected incidents dwell on Wendell's dark nights of the soul (and he has many) in a manner that, over the course of three hundred and forty-five pages, comes to feel self-indulgent. Perhaps the reader is supposed to sympathize with Wendell during his descent into hell: I found him flat and rather tiresome, and even less likable out of combat than in it.
The arc of the book is not, as one might hope, Wendell's growth from privileged screw-up to responsible grown up via the crucible of war. There are plenty of moments when Wendell resolves to screw up less, with little success. In the end, he does succeed in getting off his pretty terrible drug habit. But his emotional arc is shallow. With a handful of exceptions late in the book, all the people with whom he forms any kind of connection die. The only constant in his story is his obsession with the "genetics," the most science-fictional element of this WWI trench warfare story with science-fictional trappings: artificial soldiers bred to fight and die on command. These artificial soldiers—the American ones, at least—are universally female, universally deadly, and universally hot: you see, they all look identical.
Innocents. Bridgette and the others. She had been everything I dug about Kaz, the selflessness and the lack of bullshit, no strings. Death and faith. That was what they were all about, and she never would have cheated on me, thought I hung the moon, because by being her first, I had shown her something besides war. (p. 86)
Wendell falls in love with Bridgette at very short notice, after kissing her entire battalion at their request (they wanted to know what it felt like—clearly, all-female brigades would never have conceived of female homosexuality, just like all-male brigades never have) and when she dies, walking to her own death, her "discharge" at the hands of the MPs, he conceives something of an obsession with genetics. Eventually, he falls in love with a second genetic, Sophie, who is different from her sisters—she wants to live.
In fact, she wants to marry him and have babies so that she can be a real girl.
I need you. I want you to make me your wife . . . Give me something so that I belong. (p. 271)
Perhaps I should mention here that the super-soldiers, the killing-machine-girls, come with a built in shelf-life of only a couple of years: they're on the front line from the age of sixteen to the age of eighteen, and eighteen is the age of their "discharge." They are never referred to as women, or even females, but always as girls. Within weeks of turning eighteen, if they aren't discharged first, they begin to rot.
We lost girls every day to gangrene . . . lying there confused, the dying flesh so black on some that it looked as though they'd dipped their hands in ink. (p. 204)
And Wendell has a white knight issue with them. The ones he sees, he wants to save—to get them out of the war, to get them to want to live. Eventually he does succeed in rescuing Sophie who, despite being a badass super-soldier, spends most of her page time quite literally being carried by Wendell. Her extraction from war and death is not accomplished by her own actions, and the brief epilogue casts her as Wendell's wife, mother to his children, someone who "knows enough" about his mental scars "to leave me alone when they come" (p. 345). The epilogue, being all about Wendell, shows almost nothing of her.
Mildly diverting as stories about narcissistic self-destructive men are while I'm reading them, they—and this one in particular—anger me in hindsight. (I will leave, as more than one female reviewer has observed, matters of gender alone when they leave me alone.) McCarthy has created violent, competent, super-strong women whose abilities appear designed largely to make them attractive to his male protagonist. And Wendell cannot imagine their rescue, their rehumanization, in any form other than by his teaching them about emotions, about being "real women." His offer to Bridgette (which she declines) is, "Let's get married and have kids" (p. 73). Sophie is the only genetic whom we get to know for very long, and her expressed desire is not for more options in her life, but specifically to be a wife and to be a mother.
I find this a poisonous nexus of assumptions. And one which I've come across far too often: McCarthy's make me your wife is only the latest sentence in a long line of novels written by men who characterize their female characters thinly and without real human strength. Joanna Russ said it decades ago: "[T]he female characters of even our greatest realistic 'classics' by male writers are often not individualized portraits of possible women, but creations of fear and desire" (How to Suppress Women's Writing, 1984, p. 111). And I am weary of seeing them.
I hope in years to come McCarthy will add some more unity to his narratives, and learn to write female characters who aren't pure cardboard cutouts. In the meantime, this would be a perfectly cromulent war is hell novel with skiffy trappings, except that where it comes to characterization and women, it falls rather short of the mark.
Liz Bourke is presently reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. She has also reviewed for Ideomancer and Tor.com.